Monday’s Photo: Oranges from the Backyard

It’s amazing what a little water, some insecticide, and pruning can do for a tree.  These fresh oranges are from a tree that a year ago I didn’t even want to walk by for fear of being attacked by insect residue.

This poor orange tree looked haggard when we moved into our place in May 2010.  First, it was clothed in webs from spider mites.  The webs took over the tree, making it look like a net had been placed around it.  Very Gross.  Second, whiteflies or aphids (not sure which, most likely both) excreted a sticky substance on the back of the leaves and dirt and dust in the air collected on the stickiness, making the leaves appear not green but black and white.  Third, it was brimming with soooo many oranges, many which were long past their prime.

When we tried to eat these “fruits,” we spit them out because they were more cardboard than orange.  A trip to my local family-owned nursery helped me figure out a tactical plan to save the tree from infestation.

First we sprayed an insecticide, an All Seasons Spray Oil that connected to our hose.  I don’t know why I said we, Kris did this, while I shut the sliding glass back door and stayed clear.  Then Kris pruned off some of the lower branches which had withered fruit on them.  Immediately (this is not an exaggeration) the tree looked taller, healthier.  The leaves were green again!

Then I started watering it once every 2-3 weeks, a deep soak.  Whenever I remembered.

Now when we use these oranges they are sweet and juicy.  From time to time when we cut one open it is dry and a light yellow color instead of a brilliant orange, so we just head back outside and grab another one with our fruit picker.  The ratio of juicy fruit to dry fruit used to be 1 juicy fruit for every 4-5 dry ones, now that is pleasantly reversed.

I can garden!!

P.S. I used this fresh orange juice in this recipe.

Feeling Discouraged? Bake Bread

Has it been one of those days?  The kind when discouragement is your companion all day long.  When anxiety seems to follow you like a cat that’s been run over looking to you for a place to die.  It may be your health.  Worries over someone else’s health.  Your job or lack thereof.  Maybe your closest relationships have been on edge.

Everything needs a breath of faith.  A booster shot of peace.  Some days when we are fixated on hoping some problem will resolve, we need a reminder of the power of process.

My recommendation: bake bread.  The real kind.  Yeast, water, a little sugar, flour, salt, oil.

There is something visceral about baking bread.  The feeling of taking basic ingredients and transforming them.

Its inherent creativity gives us a sense of accomplishment.  Baking bread is not an instant gratification, the entire process reminds us to be patient; we can’t control things.  We have to let things take their course.  The good thing about bread baking is its course takes a couple of hours, whereas we have no clue with life’s other problems.

Start with the yeast.  A simple creature, easily overlooked.  These drab brown-grey granules are the size of sand.  But when we give it a little coaxing, we awaken it.  Yeast needs 4 basic things: sugar, warmth, darkness, and, most importantly, time.

First, by dissolving the yeast in warm sugar water, we start the initial prompting.  The yeast eats the sugar and emits carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles fizzing to the surface.  If the yeast is good, the bubbles will form a beige film on top and you’ll start to detect that quintessential yeast smell.

After about 10 minutes, we add ordinary staples.  Nothing special.  In fact, they are all quite bland on their own, but that’s what baking is, a creative act of combining ordinary items into something warm and comforting.

Kneading follows.  It is the process of mixing it all together, creating a round ball of dough.   Here’s the one act of baking bread that requires work.

Then we cover it with a dark kitchen towel and leave it alone.  We have to trust that it will rise, but we have no power to hurry this process.  The change is subtle at first, invisible, but after the rising time, we see proof of abundance, the dough has doubled in size.

Finally, we bake it, and the final transformation occurs.  From the oven we take out a symbol of comfort and sustenance.  In about 2 hours’ time we have a warm, fresh loaf of bread, a reminder of what can happen when we let something naturally run its course.

Lessons from the Garden: Patience

As a high school teacher, patience is one of my virtues and vices.  I can tell the same student 3 times in a one hour class period to take his headphones out of his ear every…single…day of the school year.  I can remind my students day-in-and-day-out, every time we write a quotation we need the citation, which is the what?  (choral response) “Page number.”

My patience struggles with wanting immediate results from teaching, which is not something I get very often.  For immediate results, I turn to gardening, more specifically, seed planting.  My nasturtiums have sprouted.  I had to move them from the raised bed since I discovered they acted like ground cover.At first, when I planted seeds, every day I checked to see if anything had come up.  After a week of nothing, I felt like a failure and would never be able to grow anything.  Nature of course choose this moment of doubt to give me glimmers of hope and remind me that I can be a gardener, even though my past attempts have been well-intentioned.As a teacher I have to remember that my job is to plant seeds.  Some of them will grow.  Sometimes I will get to see the results.  More importantly I have to be patient and have faith in the growing/learning process.

Lessons from the Garden: Resilience

Almost 95% destroyed, my sugar snap peas seemed a lost cause, but oh…that 5%; I wanted to salvage that 5%.  In the process, I learned a valuable lesson in the resilience of nature.

I found the culprit of my tragic eat-and-run, well, one of them, a slug no bigger than my pinky nail, but as hungry as a newborn.  I picked off this “slippery little sucker” (Yes, a cheap Pretty Woman reference) one morning before the sun had climbed beyond our fence.  The little vampire thought he was safe in the shade.

It was feasting on recent new growth my snap pea plant had shot out in a last ditch effort to stay alive.  Seeing these 2 leaves begin to emerge reminded me of nature’s resilience, its incredible capacity to stay alive and fight for survival, despite being utterly destroyed.

Hope restored, I began to water the plants more regularly.  I checked them in the morning while drinking coffee, seeing everyday new growth fighting for a chance and leaves building off of seemingly dead stalks.

Nature’s ability to restore and renew itself is remarkable.  Mother Nature is a master of resilience.  I think we all sometimes need to remember there is always a co-existing cycle of life and death.  When all seems lost, something new will always emerge if we are open to it.  The evidence: my first sugar snap pea flower.

Beginning Gardener Mistake #1

A month ago, I planted 5 sugar snap pea seedlings in my raised bed.  For a few days, they thrived, vibrant, aching to expand.  A few holes and some baby leaves entirely eaten whole started to perplex me.  After a little research, I determine, this is incontrovertible evidence of snails or slugs.

The damage didn’t seem that bad, after all, I naively thought, there are plenty of leaves for the plants to expand.  Here is beginning gardener mistake #1: underestimating the power and voracious appetite of snails/slugs, especially for pea sprouts.

I did nothing to combat these night-time mollusks.  My faith in sugar snap peas believed that it was just a little damage.  Prevented from checking on them for a few days due to a busy schedule, I return one late Saturday morning to find in the place of my once lush, green plants, 5 ravaged stalks left naked.  The culprit, vanished.

It was a classic eat-and-run.A tragic eat-and-run.

Croquettas

While honeymooning in Spain, I discovered croquettas, called croquettes in English.  Delicious pan fried ovals of potatoes and creaminess.  What I originally thought was an addition of cheese, turned out to be a rich bechemel or basic white sauce.

Perhaps the best croquettas were from this busy local bar we found around our hotel in Sevilla.  We ate there 3 times in a 2 night 3 day stay, thinking that since we’d found a place we both loved, we might as well stick with a good thing.  Kris and Spanish food had not been the best of acquaintances in other cities.

The bar’s name eludes me after a year and a half, perhaps somewhere I’ve kept a sentimental napkin, but it was always busy.  The first evening, after snaking our way for several hours on the bus from Ronda to Sevilla, we were famished.  This was the first and so far only food serving location in the 4 or 5 blocks that we’d walked, better yet, it was full at 10 pm.  Spanish people, like many Europeans have a different dinner time than we Americans are used to.  This place was so popular that a woman even squeezed in her entire baby and stroller between the packed guests in order to sit up at the bar and have tapas at 11 pm.  She passed mordaditas, little bites, to her daughter who in turn gleefully asked for “Mas.”

Croquettas should be creamy, firm and crunchy on the outside, melt in your mouth goodness on the inside.  Though simple in flavor, they are deliciously savory.  I tried my first attempts to make croquettas last night to bring to a Superbowl party today.  Last night, the first 3 tasters were not as flavorful as I remember them being.  I had combined ideas from 2 different recipes, one from Edward Schneider of the New York Times.  Since his recipe made no mention of potatoes, I found another that recommended a 2 to 1 ratio of potatoes to bechemal.  Lackluster in flavor, Kris suggested that I add Manchego cheese to the mix tomorrow, and a little more salt.

Today I cooked up the rest of the batch after adding about 2/3 cup of shredded Manchego.  Always hesitant to add salt, I refrained, thinking the cheese would bring enough salty flavor.  The croquettas still do not have the waterfall of creaminess that I remember from Spain, but they are pretty good accompaniments to more flavorful foods.  That is a nice way for saying they are still bland.  Next time I will try cream instead of 2%, maybe even more cheese, and honestly, I have to get over my slight fear of adding salt to recipes, for the sake of all involved.

Kris says the lesson here is that Spain cannot be recreated.  Well…I can sure as hell keep trying.  Until next time, I leave you with a good but bland croquettas (Spanish Ham Croquettes) recipe.  

UPDATE, post-Superbowl party: the croquettas were a hit, all eaten just as rapidly as the BBQ chicken wings.  Everyone said they were so creamy and delicious.  Is my memory playing tricks on me with how croquettas tasted?